You have all seen the British Parliament in debate, questions shouted down from the gallery, back-benchers booing and hissing, ministers interrupted and heckled continually, straining to speak over the near pandemonium, gladiatorial speechmaking. But you probably have not heard Speaker of the Parliament John Bercow pounding his gavel, bringing the Parliament to order, shouting, gravelly-voiced: “AWWWW . . . . DEHHHHHH, AWWWW . . . . . DEHHHHH!”.
Britain’s trade and travel arrangement with the European Union, somewhat similar to NAFTA, has evolved since they joined in 1973. The EU’s roots date back to the late 1940’s, initially designed as a compact for management of coal resources and steel manufacture along the industrialized border region between Germany and France, the location of the largest coal seam in Europe, and the basis of several European wars. The European Union’s extensive, modern trade and travel rules, highly evolved since then, have allowed Europe to rapidly improve cultural and economic integration, and have steadily enhanced national wealth and incomes throughout Europe.Brexit won a referendum vote June, 2016 after a controversial campaign with grossly misleading publicity, and some documented interference by Russia, with 52% of the vote, and an enormous 72% turnout. The lead-up to the vote coincided with a large wave of immigration of war refugees from Syria, slowly moving across southern Europe, into the northern regions, and right up to large migrant encampments at Calais, on the French side of the “Chunnel”, raising ancient British fears of invasion. The major swing vote came from the northern English districts, Britain’s “rust belt”, based on nationalistic, and false, perception of EU membership as a large British subsidy to the continent, at the expense of the employment stability of the British working class.
The referendum did not provide for any alternative trade arrangements between Britain and Europe – a blank slate – limbo – so no one knew what would really happen. No one was sure what the extent of the impact would be, but economists all agree that Brexit would result in a loss of national income and wealth in Britain, possibly a recession, and, given the scale of the UK in the European economy, would likely result in similar downturns of economic benefits through continental Europe. Reconstruction of arrangements for previously routine travel and trade was predicted to take years, as the UK would have to renegotiate its trade agreement with the EU, opening up complaints or compromises of other EU member countries, potentially unraveling the compact, or with each EU member one at a time, product by product, sector by sector.
The Brexit referendum result shocked the British nation and caused the immediate resignation of Prime Minister John Cameron, who had proposed it after pressure from his own Conservative Party, with the assumption it would be soundly defeated, because it is so clearly contrary to British national interests. Then, Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May was elected new leader of the Conservative Party, and acceded to the position of Prime Minister. May exhausted herself over the next three years working to gain approval of any plan, negotiating several extended withdrawal dates, during which several plans were rejected by the EU, and plans accepted by the EU were subsequently rejected by a divided Parliament. May, tired of being a political cricket ball, unable to pursue any other policies, unable to govern, threw up her hands and resigned, March, 2019.
At this point Conservative Party MP Boris Johnson, former mayor of London, long term Brexit supporter, strong, vocal critic of Theresa May for her failed negotiation efforts, while leading efforts in Parliament to defeat May’s various plans, expressing supreme confidence throughout May’s tenure that he could resolve issues with the EU simply, forcefully and quickly, was elected Conservative Party leader, and then was elected Prime Minister after a minor, public intra-party vote of around 100,000 people.
Close observers report that Johnson had a political strategy all along, to frustrate May’s efforts, create a dramatic standoff between Britain and the EU, call for elections, consolidate his Conservative party support in Parliament, then – somehow – successfully renegotiate Brexit with the EU, a goal unattainable by either of his predecessors, but, he believed, easily attainable by himself with a stronger Conservative majority behind him. He just forgot to figure out what his negotiating position would be, however. With Brexit negotiations remaining unresolved, Johnson suspended Parliament leading up to the next deadline, October 31, 2019, planning, according to close political allies, to stifle debate over his still undeveloped Brexit negotiation strategy, and assuming full control over the matter. Protests erupted throughout Britain, claiming “the end of British democracy”, and aggravating fears of the true impact of an unresolved, “Hard Brexit”. John Bercow, who had extended his tenure as Speaker of the Parliament three additional years, hoping to steer Parliament through expected difficult debates over Brexit to a conclusion, finally resigned at this point. And Johnson negotiated yet another delay in the “Hard Brexit” deadline, to January 31, 2020.
At that point, Britain formally withdrew from the EU, losing its considerable influence as the largest economy and populace within the compact, and is now in a “transition period”, without its substantial influence inside the EU, during which the trade and travel arrangements will be negotiated, with the process broken down into steps, issue by issue, sector by sector, each with its own deadlines, intended to eventually accomplish full re-negotiation, and delaying the actual trade and travel terms of the “Hard Brexit” until December 31, 2020.
None of the steps have been accomplished, only leading to further delayed deadlines, so that the process over four years has turned into a Kafka-esque negotiation of nothing but extended deadlines. More simply, having joined the country club at its formation 45 years ago, with associated beneficial dues and strong influence with the board of directors, its like then quitting outright, with the expectation of turning around and negotiating a better annual fee arrangement. Anyone taking bets that Boris Johnson will remain British Prime Minister beyond the end of the year?
It all seems strangely familiar, as if we have seen this play out somewhere before. Mass misinformation . . . strong regional economic and political divisions . . . loud, bellicose confidence . . . vague assurances of the success of unarticulated plans . . . mocking public officials struggling to resolve complex multilateral problems . . . fear and alarm over rising illegal immigration of desperately poor refugees fleeing extreme violence . . . razor thin regional election results producing new leaders . . . suggestions of Russian interference . . . sabotage of long term stabilizing international alliances . . . never quite getting anything accomplished . . . dysfunctional longstanding democratic institutions . . . poorly understood trade policy at the center of it . . . the working classes struggling to grasp it all . . . and rebelling against the modern aristocracy.
“AWWWW . . . DEHHHH, AWWW . . . . DEHHHHH!”.